Hanif Khan was a driver by profession and lived with his wife, Ruksha, their three sons, Parvez, Nur Alam and Armaan, and a foster daughter Hanni in the Cachar district of the Barak Valley that lies in the southern part of Assam.
Hanif’s ancestors were from Afghanistan and had settled here centuries ago. Ruksha is a Muslim from the neighbouring state of Manipur, from Lalpani, a village that borders the Udharbond tehsil of Cachar district. Their paths crossed, they fell in love and got married. It was a perfect match. Hanif was quiet, gentle-mannered and shy and Ruksha was fun-loving, outgoing and never hesitated to speak her mind.
When the NRC process began, Ruksha and Hanif began gathering documents for their family. Ruksha went back to Manipur to get her papers from her mother's house. Once they had put everything together, they submitted the documents much in advance to avoid the last-minute rush.
Since they did not own any land, both Ruksha and Hanif Khan claimed the inclusion of their names and those of their family members on the basis of the voters' list of 1971. They submitted school certificates to establish their link with their children. The documents were accurate and in keeping with the prescribed rules for proving citizenship. However, as the date for the release of the draft NRC drew closer, Ruksha noticed a change had come over Hanif.
He began to follow news about the NRC closely. Newspapers had been reporting regularly on the arrest and detention of people after the Foreigners’ Tribunals declared them foreigners. There had been rumours that all those who were excluded would be driven out of the country like the Rohingyas were from Myanmar.
Videos of transgressions against the Rohingyas had begun to be circulated. The xenophobic responses of politicians added to the growing sense of insecurity among the Muslims. Half-true, half-imagined stories of detention centres filled people with terror.
Hanif would repeatedly ask his neighbours and others about the rules and modalities of the NRC and the consequences of non-inclusion of a name. He was very concerned about the minor discrepancy in his age in one of the voters' list.
The neighbours tried to allay his fears by sharing what they knew. Ruksha tried explaining that their documents were flawless and that they would pass any scrutiny. But nothing seemed to reassure him. It was believed that the police were already in the know of who had been excluded and were in the process of identifying and locating the ghuspetiyas, the intruders.
Around this time, nearly 45,000 police personnel and 50 army troops had been deployed to different areas of the state that were deemed sensitive. This was in addition to the fact that the area was declared a “disturbed area” under the Armed Forces (Special Power) Act, 1958 which sanctions even non-commissioned members of the armed forces, the use of force to the extent of killing, based on mere suspicion.
Hanif, quiet by disposition, watched, listened and worried. He retreated into himself, would not leave the house, stopped going to work, and gradually stopped eating. If somehow Ruksha managed to get him out of the house, the moment he would see a police van, he’d come rushing back home and hide under the bed.
Ruksha tried everything – anger, threats, cajoling, reasoning but nothing could make him feel secure. He only thought of one thing – what would happen if their names didn’t make it to the NRC. The implications of this were too drastic to imagine. He worried that they would be uprooted and separated, sent to some far-off detention centre to be treated like criminals, tortured and abused.
It was not just Hanif. The two months before the release of NRC, everyone around seemed to be on edge, tense, suspicious. It was rumoured that there was a gang of thieves that was stealing people’s legacy papers and other NRC-related documents. The community people decided that they would form groups and take turns to keep watch for any strangers who might come to the basti at night.
Hanif joined them. After his turn, he would return home and keep watch at the house. Sleep evaded him. He was always in a daze. Ruksha realized that if this were to go on, he would completely lose his mind. She had heard that the Silchar Medical College and Hospital had a good psychiatric department. She decided to take him there. But now he was so suspicious that he would not leave the house. He thought she wanted to take him to the Police.
The only way she would be able to take him was to get someone who Hanif would listen to and so she called his brother. He was older and Hanif was slightly afraid of him. Together they would manage to take him to Silchar. Ruksha and Hanif's relationship with him was not very cordial. After much persuasion Ruksha managed to convince Hanif's brother to accompany him. Hanif’s brother is a truck driver. He said he was in Rajasthan and would return in a couple of days.
On the evening of December 31, around 7 p.m., Hanif went missing from home. At first Ruksha thought he may be in the neighbourhood watching TV, but he didn’t return for dinner or even after the children had slept. Ruksha looked for him in the vicinity but he was nowhere in the basti. It was way past midnight and she was worried. She managed to get some people together to help her look for him. After much searching till late into the night, Ruksha decided to resume her search the next day.
Early the next morning, Ruksha did find Hanif. He had hung himself from a tree some distance from their home. His worst nightmare, that his name would not be on the NRC list, had come true. The names of Ruksha and the children were also not on the list. Hanif had finally succumbed to the fear that they would all be separated and that he had failed them.
The news of Hanif’s suicide was reported widely. Local human rights organisations filed for compensation for Hanif’s family. After all, the state machinery had failed to reassure its citizens that they were not going to be discriminated against.
The plea for compensation remains unaddressed. Ruksha knows that life as a single woman with four children will not be easy. She is now the primary bread-earner for her family. The tailoring shop she had in the market had to be given up because she couldn't pay rent.
They’ve had to shift from their rented houses twice already. They now live in a bamboo enclosure and hope to find something safer and sturdier soon. Ruksha runs her household by taking stitching orders and by doing any odd work that comes her way. Her minor elder son works as a migrant labourer in Manipur. Between them, they are hoping to piece their lives back.
It is the people who have worked the hardest to build their own lives that have suffered the most. They are being made stateless in the very country that has been built on their labour. In spite of everything, Ruksha is resolute. Her act of resistance is simply that she will not buckle or be crushed by an insensitive, criminal state that has taken away the most important person in their lives. What more could they have done to prove that they were citizens of a country in which their forefathers and grandmothers had lived and toiled? She does not know. What she does know is that they will survive right here, against all odds. This is where they belong.